Story type: Essay
The most painful event since the bombardment of Alexandria has been what is called by an English writer the “invasion” of “American Literature in England.” The hostile forces, with an advanced guard of what was regarded as an “awkward squad,” had been gradually effecting a landing and a lodgment not unwelcome to the unsuspicious natives. No alarm was taken when they threw out a skirmish-line of magazines and began to deploy an occasional wild poet, who advanced in buckskin leggings, revolver in hand, or a stray sharp-shooting sketcher clad in the picturesque robes of the sunset. Put when the main body of American novelists got fairly ashore and into position the literary militia of the island rose up as one man, with the strength of a thousand, to repel the invaders and sweep them back across the Atlantic. The spectacle had a dramatic interest. The invaders were not numerous, did not carry their native tomahawks, they had been careful to wash off the frightful paint with which they usually go into action, they did not utter the defiant whoop of Pogram, and even the militia regarded them as on the whole “amusin’ young ‘possums” and yet all the resources of modern and ancient warfare were brought to bear upon them. There was a crack of revolvers from the daily press, a lively fusillade of small-arms in the astonished weeklies, a discharge of point-blank blunderbusses from the monthlies; and some of the heavy quarterlies loaded up the old pieces of ordnance, that had not been charged in forty years, with slugs and brickbats and junk-bottles, and poured in raking broadsides. The effect on the island was something tremendous: it shook and trembled, and was almost hidden in the smoke of the conflict. What the effect is upon the invaders it is too soon to determine. If any of them survive, it will be God’s mercy to his weak and innocent children.
It must be said that the American people–such of them as were aware of this uprising–took the punishment of their presumption in a sweet and forgiving spirit. If they did not feel that they deserved it, they regarded it as a valuable contribution to the study of sociology and race characteristics, in which they have taken a lively interest of late. We know how it is ourselves, they said; we used to be thin-skinned and self-conscious and sensitive. We used to wince and cringe under English criticism, and try to strike back in a blind fury. We have learned that criticism is good for us, and we are grateful for it from any source. We have learned that English criticism is dictated by love for us, by a warm interest in our intellectual development, just as English anxiety about our revenue laws is based upon a yearning that our down-trodden millions shall enjoy the benefits of free-trade. We did not understand why a country that admits our beef and grain and cheese should seem to seek protection against a literary product which is brought into competition with one of the great British staples, the modern novel. It seemed inconsistent. But we are no more consistent ourselves. We cannot understand the action of our own Congress, which protects the American author by a round duty on foreign books and refuses to protect him by granting a foreign copyright; or, to put it in another way, is willing to steal the brains of the foreign author under the plea of free knowledge, but taxes free knowledge in another form. We have no defense to make of the state of international copyright, though we appreciate the complication of the matter in the conflicting interests of English and American publishers.
Yes; we must insist that, under the circumstances, the American people have borne this outburst of English criticism in an admirable spirit. It was as unexpected as it was sudden. Now, for many years our international relations have been uncommonly smooth, oiled every few days by complimentary banquet speeches, and sweetened by abundance of magazine and newspaper “taffy.” Something too much of “taffy” we have thought was given us at times for, in getting bigger in various ways, we have grown more modest. Though our English admirers may not believe it, we see our own faults more clearly than we once did–thanks, partly, to the faithful castigations of our friends–and we sometimes find it difficult to conceal our blushes when we are over-praised. We fancied that we were going on, as an English writer on “Down-Easters” used to say, as “slick as ile,” when this miniature tempest suddenly burst out in a revival of the language and methods used in the redoubtable old English periodicals forty years ago. We were interested in seeing how exactly this sort of criticism that slew our literary fathers was revived now for the execution of their degenerate children. And yet it was not exactly the same. We used to call it “slang-whanging.” One form of it was a blank surprise at the pretensions of American authors, and a dismissal with the formula of previous ignorance of their existence. This is modified now by a modest expression of “discomfiture” on reading of American authors “whose very names, much less peculiarities, we never heard of before.” This is a tribunal from which there is no appeal. Not to have been heard of by an Englishman is next door to annihilation. It is at least discouraging to an author who may think he has gained some reputation over what is now conceded to be a considerable portion of the earth’s surface, to be cast into total obscurity by the negative damnation of English ignorance. There is to us something pathetic in this and in the surprise of the English critic, that there can be any standard of respectable achievement outside of a seven-miles radius turning on Charing Cross.
The pathetic aspect of the case has not, however, we are sorry to say, struck the American press, which has too often treated with unbecoming levity this unaccountable exhibition of English sensitiveness. There has been little reply to it; at most, generally only an amused report of the war, and now and then a discriminating acceptance of some of the criticism as just, with a friendly recognition of the fact that on the whole the critic had done very well considering the limitation of his knowledge of the subject on which he wrote. What is certainly noticeable is an entire absence of the irritation that used to be caused by similar comments on America thirty years ago. Perhaps the Americans are reserving their fire as their ancestors did at Bunker Hill, conscious, maybe, that in the end they will be driven out of their slight literary entrenchments. Perhaps they were disarmed by the fact that the acrid criticism in the London Quarterly Review was accompanied by a cordial appreciation of the novels that seemed to the reviewer characteristically American. The interest in the tatter’s review of our poor field must be languid, however, for nobody has taken the trouble to remind its author that Brockden Brown–who is cited as a typical American writer, true to local character, scenery, and color–put no more flavor of American life and soil in his books than is to be found in “Frankenstein.”
It does not, I should suppose, lie in the way of The Century, whose general audience on both sides of the Atlantic takes only an amused interest in this singular revival of a traditional literary animosity–an anachronism in these tolerant days when the reading world cares less and less about the origin of literature that pleases it–it does not lie in the way of The Century to do more than report this phenomenal literary effervescence. And yet it cannot escape a certain responsibility as an immediate though innocent occasion of this exhibition of international courtesy, because its last November number contained some papers that seem to have been irritating. In one of them Mr. Howells let fall some chance remarks on the tendency of modern fiction, without adequately developing his theory, which were largely dissented from in this country, and were like the uncorking of six vials in England. The other was an essay on England, dictated by admiration for the achievements of the foremost nation of our time, which, from the awkwardness of the eulogist, was unfortunately the uncorking of the seventh vial–an uncorking which, as we happen to know, so prostrated the writer that he resolved never to attempt to praise England again. His panic was somewhat allayed by the soothing remark in a kindly paper in Blackwood’s Magazine for January, that the writer had discussed his theme “by no means unfairly or disrespectfully.” But with a shudder he recognized what a peril he had escaped. Great Scott!–the reference is to a local American deity who is invoked in war, and not to the Biblical commentator–what would have happened to him if he had spoken of England “disrespectfully”!
We gratefully acknowledge also the remark of the Blackwood writer in regard-to the claims of America in literature. “These claims,” he says, “we have hitherto been very charitable to.” How our life depends upon a continual exhibition by the critics of this divine attribute of charity it would perhaps be unwise in us to confess. We can at least take courage that it exists–who does not need it in this world of misunderstandings?–since we know that charity is not puffed up, vaunteth not itself, hopeth all things, endureth all things, is not easily provoked; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish; but charity never faileth. And when all our “dialects” on both sides of the water shall vanish, and we shall speak no more Yorkshire or Cape Cod, or London cockney or “Pike” or “Cracker” vowel flatness, nor write them any more, but all use the noble simplicity of the ideal English, and not indulge in such odd-sounding phrases as this of our critic that “the combatants on both sides were by way of detesting each other,” though we speak with the tongues of men and of angels–we shall still need charity.
It will occur to the charitable that the Americans are at a disadvantage in this little international “tiff.” For while the offenders have inconsiderately written over their own names, the others preserve a privileged anonymity. Any attempt to reply to these voices out of the dark reminds one of the famous duel between the Englishman and the Frenchman which took place in a pitch-dark chamber, with the frightful result that when the tender-hearted Englishman discharged his revolver up the chimney he brought down his man. One never can tell in a case of this kind but a charitable shot might bring down a valued friend or even a peer of the realm.
In all soberness, however, and setting aside the open question, which country has most diverged from the English as it was at the time of the separation of the colonies from the motherland, we may be permitted a word or two in the hope of a better understanding. The offense in The Century paper on “England” seems to have been in phrases such as these: “When we began to produce something that was the product of our own soil and of our own social conditions, it was still judged by the old standards;” and, we are no longer irritated by “the snobbishness of English critics of a certain school,” “for we see that its criticism is only the result of ignorance simply of inability to understand.”
Upon this the reviewer affects to lose his respiration, and with “a gasp of incredulity” wants to know what the writer means, “and what standards he proposes to himself when he has given up the English ones?” The reviewer makes a more serious case than the writer intended, or than a fair construction of the context of his phrases warrants. It is the criticism of “a certain school” only that was said to be the result of ignorance. It is not the English language nor its body of enduring literature–the noblest monument of our common civilization–that the writer objected to as a standard of our performances. The standard objected to is the narrow insular one (the term “insular” is used purely as a geographical one) that measures life, social conditions, feeling, temperament, and national idiosyncrasies expressed in our literature by certain fixed notions prevalent in England. Probably also the expression of national peculiarities would diverge somewhat from the “old standards.” All we thought of asking was that allowance should be made for this expression and these peculiarities, as it would be made in case of other literatures and peoples. It might have occurred to our critics, we used to think, to ask themselves whether the English literature is not elastic enough to permit the play of forces in it which are foreign to their experience. Genuine literature is the expression, we take it, of life-and truth to that is the standard of its success. Reference was intended to this, and not to the common canons of literary art. But we have given up the expectation that the English critic “of a certain school” will take this view of it, and this is the plain reason–not intended to be offensive–why much of the English criticism has ceased to be highly valued in this country, and why it has ceased to annoy. At the same time, it ought to be added, English opinion, when it is seen to be based upon knowledge, is as highly respected as ever. And nobody in America, so far as we know, entertains, or ever entertained, the idea of setting aside as standards the master-minds in British literature. In regard to the “inability to understand,” we can, perhaps, make ourselves more clearly understood, for the Blackwood’s reviewer has kindly furnished us an illustration in this very paper, when he passes in patronizing review the novels of Mr. Howells. In discussing the character of Lydia Blood, in “The Lady of the Aroostook,” he is exceedingly puzzled by the fact that a girl from rural New England, brought up amid surroundings homely in the extreme, should have been considered a lady. He says:
“The really ‘American thing’ in it is, we think, quite undiscovered either by the author or his heroes, and that is the curious confusion of classes which attributes to a girl brought up on the humblest level all the prejudices and necessities of the highest society. Granting that there was anything dreadful in it, the daughter of a homely small farmer in England is not guarded and accompanied like a young lady on her journeys from one place to another. Probably her mother at home would be disturbed, like Lydia’s aunt, at the thought that there was no woman on board, in case her child should be ill or lonely; but, as for any impropriety, would never think twice on that subject. The difference is that the English girl would not be a young lady. She would find her sweetheart among the sailors, and would have nothing to say to the gentlemen. This difference is far more curious than the misadventure, which might have happened anywhere, and far more remarkable than the fact that the gentlemen did behave to her like gentlemen, and did their best to set her at ease, which we hope would have happened anywhere else. But it is, we think, exclusively American, and very curious and interesting, that this young woman, with her antecedents so distinctly set before us, should be represented as a lady, not at all out of place among her cultivated companions, and ‘ready to become an ornament of society the moment she lands in Venice.”
Reams of writing could not more clearly explain what is meant by “inability to understand” American conditions and to judge fairly the literature growing out of them; and reams of writing would be wasted in the attempt to make our curious critic comprehend the situation. There is nothing in his experience of “farmers’ daughters” to give him the key to it. We might tell him that his notion of a farmer’s daughters in England does not apply to New England. We might tell him of a sort of society of which he has no conception and can have none, of farmers’ daughters and farmers’ wives in New England–more numerous, let us confess, thirty or forty years ago than now–who lived in homely conditions, dressed with plainness, and followed the fashions afar off; did their own household work, even the menial parts of it; cooked the meals for the “men folks” and the “hired help,” made the butter and cheese, and performed their half of the labor that wrung an honest but not luxurious living from the reluctant soil. And yet those women–the sweet and gracious ornaments of a self-respecting society–were full of spirit, of modest pride in their position, were familiar with much good literature, could converse with piquancy and understanding on subjects of general interest, were trained in the subtleties of a solid theology, and bore themselves in any company with that traditional breeding which we associate with the name of lady. Such strong native sense had they, such innate refinement and courtesythe product, it used to be said, of plain living and high thinking–that, ignorant as they might be of civic ways, they would, upon being introduced to them, need only a brief space of time to “orient” themselves to the new circumstances. Much more of this sort might be said without exaggeration. To us there is nothing incongruous in the supposition that Lydia Blood was “ready to become an ornament to society the moment she lands in Venice.”
But we lack the missionary spirit necessary to the exertion to make our interested critic comprehend such a social condition, and we prefer to leave ourselves to his charity, in the hope of the continuance of which we rest in serenity.